BENHAM, Sir William Blaxland, K.B.E.
Born at Isleworth, Middlesex, on 29 March 1860, Benham was the third son and sixth child of Edward Benham, a solicitor of London, and of Mary Anne, née Shoppee. He was educated at Marlborough College, and at University College London. According to his own recollections, Benham's youthful ambition had been to enter the Indian Civil Service as an engineer, and his subsequent pursuit of a scientific career in the field of zoology was due, not to family influences, but to his contact at University College with Sir Ray Lankester. After graduating, Benham assisted Lankester in the Department of Zoology from 1886–90; concurrently (1886–98) he was also lecturer in biology at Bedford College, and (1891–98) Aldrichian demonstrator in morphology at the University of Oxford. His research activity developed early, and over this period he published some 30 papers, mainly on Annelida; the most important contribution was a section on Archiannelida, Polychaeta and Myzostomaria in the Cambridge Natural History, Vol. 2 (1896, reprinted 1960).
Following the death of Parker, Benham was appointed in 1898 to the vacant chair of biology at the University of Otago; this involved curatorial responsibility at the Otago Museum, as well as formal teaching, and to this he added an active programme of research. He embarked almost immediately upon an investigation of the earthworm fauna of New Zealand; two papers in 1899 dealt with Hutton's original type-material, and the forerunners of a long series of important systematic contributions, which concluded only in 1950, the year of his death. In 1899–1900, Benham's interests were temporarily diverted by the discovery of the first New Zealand enteropneust, which he recorded under the name Balanoglossus otagoensis, and by the discovery of a fourth specimen of Notornis. Resuming his work on earthworms, Benham also found occasion to deal with other invertebrates as occasion arose; his first paper on molluscs appeared in 1905, though nearly 40 years elapsed before he returned to this group with a series of important contributions (The Octopodous Mollusca of New Zealand) published in the Trans. Roy. Soc. N.Z., 1942–44. Benham was also interested in the exploration of the fauna of the continental shelf, his first paper (1900) dealing briefly with the results of trawling off the coast of Otago. Over the next 20 years several other papers were devoted to marine invertebrates. Meantime, his important volume on Platyhelmia, Mesozoa and Nemertini was published (1901) in Lankester's Treatise of Zoology. Other work in 1901 included two papers on the New Zealand amphioxid Heteropleuron hectori, a record of the first shallow-water crinoid from New Zealand, and two papers on the anatomy of whales. The latter proved to be forerunners of a series of contributions on Cetacea, ending in 1942, and including descriptions of important fossil material. In 1902 yet another field of interest opened, with the discovery of an intact moa egg; over the next 32 years he published occasional records of other moa material, including footprints, and bones indicating the former existence of moas in Stewart Island. Throughout the first decade of the century Benham was very active in the affairs of the (then) Otago Institute, now a branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand; He served as governor of the institute, 1905–11.
The years 1906–34 were devoted mainly to a long series of studies on the Annelida, not only of New Zealand but also from the southern islets of the New Zealand submarine plateau, from Antarctic expeditions, from the Kermadec Islands and elsewhere. He was, by this time, regarded as a leading authority on earthworms though, as it will be seen, his strong views on the origin and distribution of southern earthworm faunas were now meeting opposition from overseas students, and have since been discounted for the most part. His latter years were mainly devoted to the work on whales and octopuses, concluding in 1950 with a final paper on annelids from the New Zealand “Cape” Expedition to Auckland and Campbell Islands.
Benham was elected F.R.S. in 1907. Four years later he received the Hutton Medal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, being the first recipient of the award. He was also one of the original fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand. In 1935 he was awarded the society's Hector Medal and Prize. After his retirement, in 1936, the University of New Zealand awarded him an honorary D.Sc. (1937), and he also received the Coronation Medal in the same year. In 1939 the K.B.E. was conferred upon him in recognition of outstanding service to science and to education.
During his retirement, Benham remained active, as his research record shows. He was always willing to assist others, especially younger workers who sought his advice. On his ninetieth birthday he could still acknowledge individually the numerous congratulatory messages that came from scientists in many quarters. Benham died in Dunedin on 21 August 1950, in his ninety-first year. In 1899 Benham married Beatrice Eadie, of London, who died in 1909: there were two children, a son and a daughter.
Benham, through his immense industry and self-discipline, has left a wealth of data in the archives of science, both in New Zealand and abroad. His writing is terse, lucid, and logical. Honesty always compelled him to draw attention to his occasional mistakes, and though he was usually the first to discover them, he did not spare himself. His training, like that of most British scientists in the late nineteenth century, had been that offered by the traditional English public school – a liberal grounding in Latin and Greek, and a disdain for experimental methods. That he escaped from the disadvantage of the latter, whilst retaining the blessings of the former, must be attributed to the influence of Lankester. Benham's literary style was more that of Aristotle rather than of Tacitus, absolutely direct, without pretension to elaborate syntax or involved period. The fact was stated clearly, the deduction driven home. He did not hesitate to use homely simile if it could clarify a description. A characteristic passage appears in the description of a fossil whale (1942), where he wrote (of the structure of a bone): “The relation of the various layers is analogous to the parts of a peach; the light buff superficial coating is the ‘skin’; the solid dark brown part is the ‘flesh’; the cancellous layer is the ‘stone’; and the matrix recalls the ‘kernel or seed’”. This illustrates his resolute refusal to garb facts in technical jargon, when vernacular English would suffice. He also contrived to inject a vein of sly humour into the titles of his papers wherein some of his colleagues might read a rebuke to excessive technicality. Among the more amusing of these are: “A yard-long earthworm” (1949), and “… A nomenclatural muddle solved” (1950). Traces of these late mannerisms can be found in his youthful papers also: thus, in 1891, he reports with (apparently) grave solemnity upon “An earthworm collected for the British Museum by Emin Pasha in Equatorial Africa” – and again, in 1903, he drew attention to “A neglected Tasmanian earthworm”. Touches such as these enliven the solemn bibliography of science, though only Benham seems to have overcome the reluctance of editors to permit such levity.
If his systematic zoology was of the first order, the same cannot now be admitted for his zoogeographic studies, for it is plain that he never grasped the complexity of the distribution-patterns of southern organisms, or the need to correlate zoological data with that yielded by other disciplines. For Benham, like others before him, land bridges rose and fell at the dictate of earthworms, which he believed to be infallible evidence of terrestrial migration routes. He inadequately appreciated the adaptability of organisms, permitting occasional transoceanic distribution by natural means, and preferred to postulate land links with oceanic islands which geologists, on the other hand, considered never to have been linked to other land masses. Thus the theories of Antarctic and South American land links with New Zealand and other southern lands, which Benham so stoutly defended, find little support today. These, however, are matters of interpretation, not of fundamental fact. Benham's real contribution to knowledge lies in the enormous wealth of morphological data recorded in his papers, and its permanent validity. In a world context they are outstanding; for New Zealand they are superb. Always just in his criticisms, avoiding the extravagant controversy which spoils so many writings of his period, Benham's own have the flavour of the eighteenth, rather than the nineteenth century – and as such, may well endure as models for a generation yet unborn.
by Howard Barraclough Fell, M.SC.(N.Z.), PH.D., D.SC.(EDIN.), F.R.S.N.Z., Associate Professor of Zoology, Victoria University of Wellington.
- Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 80 (1952), (Obit and bibliography).